FROM THE MUSIC THAT MATON MADE
ROLLING STONES – GIMME SHELTER
But there’s something about the guitar on “Gimme Shelter” that’s very different.
The song contains one of The Rolling Stones’ best-known riffs, it comes from one of their most critically-acclaimed albums and it has one of the most fascinating backstories in their entire catalogue.
And what was Keith Richards playing on it? A Fender Telecaster? A Les Paul Standard? A sunburst Gibson ES-330TD?
None of the above. It was a Maton SE777.
The story of how Richards ended up with an Australian guitar in his hands while recording “Gimme Shelter” in 1969 is a happy accident.
Like so many things from that time, Richards forgets the name of the person who owned the instrument, but remembers him staying at his London apartment for a while.
“He crashed out for a couple of days and suddenly left in a hurry, leaving that guitar behind,” he recalled in a 2002 interview with Guitar World. “You know, ‘Take care of it for me.’ I certainly did.”
Well, not exactly. In fact, the guitar ended up in two pieces. Richards played the Maton throughout the Let It Bleed sessions in February and March 1969 and particularly on “Midnight Rambler” and “Gimme Shelter”.
“It had been all revarnished and painted out, but it sounded great,” he said. “It made a great record. And on the very last note of ‘Gimme Shelter’ the whole neck fell off. You can hear it on the original take.”
The run of four albums the Stones made between 1968 and 1972 - Beggars Banquet (1968), Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile On Main Street (1972) - is generally considered the highpoint of their 53-year career.
But the band was at a fractious point in March 1969 when they entered Olympic Studios in Barnes, south-west London. Brian Jones, their mercurial but drug-addled lead guitarist, was virtually missing in action during the making of Let It Bleed. Although he would turn up to the early sessions – and there is even a photo of him sitting cross-legged on the studio floor, attaching a capo to the neck of the same Maton played by Richards – he had become increasingly erratic and unable to play, and is only credited with recording congas on “Midnight Rambler” and autoharp on “You Got The Silver”.
Richards played the lion’s share of the guitars on the album, with Mick Taylor, who would soon become a full-time member, playing on “Country Honk” and “Live With Me”.
Jones, who was originally the leader of the band, was sacked on June 8, 1969. He died from drowning in his pool on July 2. He was 27 years old.
Meanwhile, Jagger and Richards were having their own personal problems. In the soap opera of the Stones’ love lives - it was the late-’60s after all - Richards had taken up with Jones’ girlfriend of two years, Italian model and actress Anita Pallenberg, in 1967. In early 1969, Pallenberg was acting with Jagger in the British gangster film Performance, and the two had an affair.
Some have suggested the sense of stormy menace is “Gimme Shelter” is directly related to Richards’ feelings of betrayal. It should be pointed out that Richards has admitted that, in an act of revenge, he had sex – just once - with Jagger’s girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull.
Jagger has always talked about the lyrics to “Gimme Shelter” as reflecting the times at the end of the ’60s. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, he said, "Well, it (was) a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn't like World War II, and it wasn't like Korea, and it wasn't like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn't like it. People objected, and people didn't want to fight it."
Richards’ take on it is more personal. He reflected on the song in Life, his 2010 memoir: “I wrote Gimme Shelter on a stormy day, sitting in Robert Fraser's apartment in Mount Street (in London’s exclusive Mayfair). Anita was shooting Performance at the time, not far away. It was just a terrible fucking day and it was storming out there. I was sitting there in Mount Street and there was this incredible storm over London, so I got into that mode, just looking out of Robert's window and looking at all these people with their umbrellas being blown out of their grasp and running like hell. And the idea came to me. My thought was storms on other people's minds, not mine. It just happened to hit the moment.”
Barry Divola 2014